Historic Movies Filmed In The California Delta

Also see
Paddlewheel steamboats in the early days of the California Delta.

I did not write this - Riverboat Dave

I remember it well, although it perhaps was a dozen years ago when I was driving through the waterside hamlet of Rio Vista and spotted a strange creature exiting an ultra-light airplane. It was a duck, no more than four feet high and dressed in aviator's garb. Clenched firmly in its yellow bill was a large cigar. I grabbed my Nikons and snapped a couple of photos as an army of security guards descended upon me. "You can't photograph that duck," said one guard, a big guy. "We're going to have to confiscate your film."

No stinking security guard was going to get my film, I let the big lug know. Someone of real authority arrived, I identified myself, and a compromise was made. It seems a crew was there filming the George Lucas movie Howard The Duck. Prerelease publicity on the movie had made a big deal out of not letting anyone have a full view of what Howard looked like. To this day, I don't know what happened to those photos. But I do know that I put the Delta Dawdler's hex on the film. It failed miserably at the box office, laid an egg so to speak. It contained some nice aerial scenes of Howard flying over the Suisun Marshes. But it seems the public was not yet ready for a movie about a duck from another planet.

A Bit Of Irony

Less than a decade later I found myself working with one of the Lucasfilm scouts to find locations and boats to film some Congo River and Barcelona, Spain footage that ran on television as part of the Young Indiana Jones series. A Delta boat doubled as a Congo River steamer out on Venice Cut as a uniformed band of rifle-toting rebels ran along the shore firing at it. A portion of the Stockton Deepwater Channel near Happy Harbor doubled as the Barcelona harbor, and Bob and Donna Hamilton's classic yacht Marcy served as an early yacht off which some crusty spy used binoculars to figure out troop movements in Barcelona.

Movie-making has been a cottage industry in the Delta for a very long time. Back in 1914 Rio Vistans were all excited about the filming locally of Cameo Kirby, starring Dustan Farnum and Winifred Kingston. It was a silent film about a devil-may-care riverboat gambler with a cameo ring. Much of the story took place aboard a paddlewheeler with a New Orleans setting. Many local people served as extras.

In 1916 the movie people were filming the movie Jim Bledso in the Rio Vista area. The script called for a fire aboard the vintage 1890 sternwheeler Grace Barton, to be filmed near Wood Island, which has since been dredged away. Movie fires in those silent film days were created with smoke pots, all smoke but little or no flames. Something went awry during the Jim Bledso filming. The old riverboat caught fire and soon was destroyed by flames. They say there was quite a bit of realism to that movie as passengers were fleeing the inferno. The fire had not been intended. And, I expect that after paying for a riverboat, the movie went a bit over budget.

Good Business

As movies advanced into talkies, it did not take long for the city of Sacramento to realize that there was good business to be had here. Its environs and the Delta's vast waterways system could be made to look like most anyplace in the world that required waterways. Hundreds of Sacramento skid-row bums picked up a few dollars playing the parts of grizzled sourdoughs for Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush in 1924 and later in Winds Of Chance. Between 1914 and 1935, at least 45 feature-length movies were filmed in the Sacramento area. And in over half of them, the Delta waterways doubled as the Mississippi River.

The Delta had a fleet of steamboats that could rival that of the Mississippi. All a movie producer had to do to transform a Delta steamer into one that would look right at home on the Mississippi River was to add a bit of plywood gingerbread to it and tack on an extra smokestack. Certainly one of the impressive transformations was that of the 144-foot sternwheelerLeader, which played the part of the Claremore Queen in the Will Rogers movie Steamboat Round The Bend, filmed in both the Stockton and Sacramento areas in 1935.

As the Claremore Queen, the vintage-1884 Leader looked cute. It had put its time in on the river, often making the upriver run on the San Joaquin River towing barges, hardly glamorous work. So this was pretty heady stuff, this plain-Jane steamer starring in a movies, hearing the rustle of crinoline skirts, the sounds of music, and the shuffling of dancing  feet on her tired decks. By the 1930s, the reign of the steamboats in the Delta was about over. Goods were being efficiently moved either by rail or by trucks over our improved highway system. The Great Depression was upon us. The steamboat companies were happy to pick up a few dollars renting their idle sternwheelers and crews out to the Hollywood people.

Steamboat Movies

Hollywood did two remakes of Rio Vista's silent film Cameo Kirby in the Sacramento area, one in 1923 starring John Gilbert, and again in 1929 featuring Myrna Loy and Stepin Fetchit. In 1928, Buster Keaton built a town on the Sacramento River just above the American River. It represented a Missouri town for the filming of Steamboat Bill, Jr. He hired over 1,000 extras locally.

The sternwheeler Capital City snugged up to a Sacramento River sandy beach freshly planted with palm trees for the 1933 movie Mandalay, starring Kay Francis and Ricardo Cortez. The venerable Stockton sternwheeler Capt. Weber played her part as the Cumberland in the 1943 movie Dixie, starring Bing Crosby. Later that year she went up in flames during a Stockton waterfront fire. Earlier, she had starred with Mickey Rooney in the first talkie version of Huckleberry Finn. The petite sternwheeler Flora, 141 feet in length and built in 1885, played the part of Dixie in the movie Huckleberry Finn, and ultimately perished in the terrible Broderick fire of 1932 that took a score of steamboats to their graves. The 146-foot Jacinto, built in 1889, play her part in the same movie and also perished in the Broderick conflagration.

Stockton Movies

Although Stockton got some attention during the filming of Steamboat Round The Bend in 1935, it was not until after WWII that it began to attract its share of the movie business. (Sacramento's heyday was in the 1920s, when movies about the Mississippi River were all the rage. But recently, Sacramento again has become favored for movie and TV filming.) The riverboating movies fell off in the harsh reality of the Depression years of the 1930s, although a few steamboating movies continued to be filmed in the Delta.

A three-man committee was formed in 1956  to attract movie business to the Stockton area. Its efforts soon paid off. Between 1957 and 1960 at least seven major movies were filmed in the  Stockton area. God's Little Acre  included Bob Ryan, Tina Louise, Vic Morrow and Buddy Hackett. The Big Country cast included Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Jean Simmons, Chuck Rogers and Burl Ives. Miss Brooks featured Eve Arden. The Porgy and Bess cast included Sammy Davis, Jr. and Pearl Baily.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn included much filming on the Delta. Its stars included Tony Randall, Eddie Hodges, Jr. and boxing great Archie Moore. The once-grand sternwheeler Delta King was a derelict by the time this movie was filmed in 1960. But they tacked a couple of fake stacks on the old girl, side-tied a tugboat to her for power, and filmed her from angles that did not reveal her wheel-less stern. She looked quite proud in the movie, parts of which were filmed in the Stockton Deepwater Channel by Windmill Cove Marina. The movie High Time brought Bing Crosby, as well as the Fabulous Fabian to Stockton.

Paul Newman brought his dazzling good looks to Stockton in 1967 for the filming of Cool Hand Luke, which also starred George Kennedy. They built a chapel and other structures near the rattly old Brandt Bridge on the Roberts Island side of the San Joaquin River. This now-gone bridge played a big part in the movie, as did the chapel. One of the most famous movies filmed in Stockton was the Academy-Award-winning All The King's Men, filmed in 1946 and starring Broderick Crawford and John Ireland. Any Stockton old-timer will tell you about a dramatic night scene from the movie that took place on the steps of Stockton's City Hall.

John Wayne

But it is doubtful that any actor or actress captured the hearts of Stocktonians as did John Wayne when he was in town with Lauren Bacall for the filming of Blood Alley in 1954. When "The Duke" would return to the old Stockton Hotel dog-tired after a long day of filming out on the Delta, there would be long lines of 100 to 400 kids waiting for autographs and night after night he would accommodate all of them. Wayne admired old Tom Case and his 86-foot former Geodetic Survey boat Virginia S, a longtime fixture on the Stockton waterfront. Wayne, a boater himself, made the Virginia S his unofficial headquarters in Stockton.

About the boat John Wayne bought for the movie Blood Alley.

The Chicu San, the sternweeler used in the movie, was the former Delta snag boat Putah. After the movie, the boat went into excursion boat service out of Old Sacramento as the Mansion Belle. It went to distant places over the years, but returned to the Delta in 1991 to again do excursion service out of Old Sacramento, now as The Spirit of Sacramento. It later burned, nearly to the waterline.

The Delta almost never gets to be itself. It doubled for places in the Yukon in the 1924 filming of Gold Rush, then became China for Shanghai Bound in 1927; doubled for places on Burma's Irrawaddy River in Mandalya (1933), and Vietnam for the more recent spoof Hot Shots Deux. Well, Stockton did get to be itself for brief moments for the filming of Fat City, a boxing movie which was set in Stockton and showed its seamier side. And Sacramento got to play itself in the 1925 film about the U.S. Mail Service's most exciting era, in Pony Express.

There is considerable TV stuff filmed in the Delta too. In a two-month period from December 1973 through January 1974, pilots for Happy Days, Little House on the Prairie and Manhunters all were being filmed in the Stockton area. I got to see some of the TV people in action where I kept my boat berthed at Windmill Cove Marina in 1985 when Hollywood transformed the marina into an Amazon River Village for a two-hour segment of the then-popular A-Team with George Peppard and Mister T. Watching filming take place was not very exciting. Perhaps the most exciting part of that filming was when Mister T. had me booted off the set because he thought my Nikons were "stealing his soul."

Some Delta-filmed movies can be very forgettable. We once spent perhaps 10 hours hanging around the old Moore's Riverboat about 1978 during the filming of parts of the movie Swim Team, which they said starred Paul Newman's daughter. It moved from the Riverboat upstream a mile or so on the Mokelumne River for more filming at Perry's Yacht Harbor. I've never seen the movie mentioned yet. And in 1986, water-ski aficionados over Discovery Bay way got excited when the movie Delta Fever was filmed in the area, featuring many locals as extras and even utilizing some local skiboats. The film included a "ski tournament" on Holland Tract and a house burning in the sleepy town of Byron. Leif Garrett and Kelly Lang were among the stars in this movie, that did not make much of a splash at the box office.

TV and movie people sort of sneak into the Delta, shoot for a few hours or a few days, never unobserved, but often without much ado. As a producer, Clint Eastwood shot parts of Pink Cadillac in the Sacramento area. He filmed portions of his movie about Jazz great Charlie Parker, Bird, in both Bird's Landing and Locke. Robert Conrad starred in a football movie Glory Days filmed at Stockton's University of the Pacific in 1987 (I later met Conrad when he went houseboating on the Delta with his family.) Jane Seymour has been to Sacramento at least twice for Old Sacramento filmings for her Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman series. I'm told that filming for Devil Takes a Holiday, about a turkey possessed by the devil, took place both at Sacramento and the Ryde Hotel and the Grand Island Mansion.

Filming of movies in the Delta is an ongoing activity. When going to Steamboat Slough for some photography in mid-November, 1998, we had to detour through Ryde because filming for the John Travolta movie, The General's Daughter was taking place at the head of Steamboat Slough on the old Steamboat Landing property.  by Hal Schell

    Index To Delta History:
Delta History (General)
The Paddlewheeler Era
Historic Delta Ferries 
Historic Drawbridges
Historic Movies of The Delta
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Date Last Edited = 10/30/98

Note: all this material was adapted from Hal Schell's copyrighted hardcover book Cruising California's Delta, and all rights are reserved.

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